If you play a game long enough, you start to be able to predict it. Thirty hours in, The Witcher 3’s still got me stumped.
OK, not entirely stumped. I know that I’ll likely be using my Witcher senses to follow some sort of trail to a place, brew some potions, slather myself in sensuous oils, and meet/slay/have sex with a monster. Many Witcher 3 quests at least include elements of that formula. I love the game best, however, when it subverts its own structure. And it does that a whole hell of a lot.
Last week Kirk wrote about how big The Witcher 3 is, but I feel like its size would be a huge knock against it if not for the number of curveballs it throws. I usually get bored of games that offer gigantic worlds. It doesn’t take long for me to see them for what they are: repetitive playgrounds for the same series of rote mechanics—meh-chanics, really. So I play until they get predictable (usually around the 20 hour mark or something like that) and then I move on. The Witcher 3, for me, hasn’t even come close to falling prey to that issue. Its world still feels surprising, terrifying, alive.
(Warning: spoilers lurk in the depths of this post. Probably also wolves for some reason. Fuckers are everywhere, ya know?)
Let’s start with a simple example: I walked into a random rundown shack with the intention of ransacking the crap (and alchemy supplies and mugs and rotting jars of bear fat) out of it, because duh. This is how Witchers keep their business afloat. Not through monster contracts or random acts of grumpiness, but by stuffing 4364882 broken rakes down their trousers. For some reason, people don’t care if you swipe all their stuff (only guards—who largely prowl outdoors—even notice), so it was gonna be a routine in and out.
However, for the first time ever—around 25 hours in—I walked in not on people cooking or sleeping or idly chatting or staring maniacally at me, melted eye sockets running like waterfalls of tar, but instead they were... dead. And the culprit, a bandit in triumphant tighty whities, still loomed over them, admiring the handiwork of his grim deed. I gasped, not because this was something I’d never encountered in a video game, but because I’d never encountered it in this video game—especially not in the context of an easy, downright relaxing looting session. It was like opening a treasure chest and having a creepy jack-in-the-box clown pop out.
It served to further drive home the way this world works, too. Shit sucks. If you’re not being robbed blind by the so-called “hero” of the game, you’re being brutally slaughtered by a half-naked idiot and then robbed blind and then avenged by a guy who just wanted to rob you. Fun stuff.
That was just a small thing, albeit one of my favorites. This sort of thing happens to me all the time in The Witcher 3, though. Quests, especially, love to pull the comfy plush rug out from beneath your feet. I can cite more than a dozen examples, but for now I’ll go with what seemed to be an ordinary all-you-can-slay monster clearance mission in an old lady’s mansion. I think I got it from a notice board, aka The Witcher 3’s equivalent of Craigslist. It was supposed to be a simple “go here, do this, think briefly about decently written mini-story, claim reward.” An odd job with a slight twist.
I came face-to-face with the main bad guy from The Witcher 2. The Assassin Of Goddamn Kings.
He was just chilling out in this old lady’s barn. A Witcher himself, he’d taken care of her monster problem and was using the place to lay low and avoid would-be Assassins Of The Assassin Of Kings. Since I let him live at the end of Witcher 2, I thought he’d probably turn up somewhere in The Witcher 3, but then and there of all places? Never in a million years. And the ensuing quest was excellent. It came packed with more surprises and some nice character development for a dude who previously seemed like one of Vin Diesel’s less inspired roles on (more) steroids.
What I’m really digging about The Witcher 3—what keeps me hooked to the detriment of responsibilities and eating and my girlfriend’s patience for watching “the game with all the white people”—is that this tendency to make the player comfortable and then surprise the shit out of them is everywhere. This isn’t the rote, humdrum open world of an Assassin’s Creed or even a Far Cry, where you do the same basic things and get the same basic rewards over and over and over until you don’t need to peek around the corner anymore because you already know exactly what’s there—where you wish the game would just get to the fucking point already. The Witcher 3—with its world map lit up like a Christmas tree of exclamation points and question marks and monster nests and waypoints and towns and caves and boats and beard grooming stations—establishes a formula so it can undermine it at every turn. In that way, it stays interesting. In that way, it continues to be about the journey, not the destination.
Often, this is done not necessarily with tangible rewards, but with story (case in point: holy shit, the Bloody Baron). Other times, it’s tangible rewards—cool loot, a game-changing upgrade, a one-of-a-kind weapon in some random chest in the middle of nowhere—on top of story, or sans any story at all. But the key is variation. The key is that you’re never quite sure what you’re gonna get. Everything feels like it matters. No matter what you do, it has a solid chance of being amazing, or at least solidly interesting.
It’s the same open-world allure that drew me into Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas, games that, for me, still haven’t been matched in terms of keeping me utterly engrossed for months on end. In an article I wrote a million-billion years ago, I compared the new Fallouts to other video games that reward you with the same thing again and again, explaining Fallout’s appeal thusly:
“In measured servings, Bethesda’s recent opus rewarded my exploration with special weapons, kooky characters, special quests, and enthralling fragments of the Wasteland’s past. Granted, when boiled down to that level, even Fallout 3 didn’t actually provide an inimitable amount of variety in its reward system. They key here is that even a little exploration-based reward variety – even in the background of a game that essentially has you performing variations on the same few actions time and time again – is potentially enough to keep players chomping at the bit 50 hours into the experience.”
Based on what I’ve played of The Witcher 3 so far, I think it manages that same hat trick and then some. Can it keep it up? I don’t know. I’m only 30 hours into an experience that can apparently last me 200. And I’m not saying The Witcher 3 is never predictable. Question marks on the map fall into a handful of categories, and there’s not a whole lot of variation there. A few monster hunts have felt sorta samey. Even the writing sometimes feels like the developers threw in a twist for the sake of having a twist, rather than a fully thought-out mini-story. The Witcher 3 definitely feels like Ultimate Video Game Open World Plus, not a revolution that turns the whole formula on its head. In an age of same-y open worlds, though, I think that’s enough to be a breath of fresh air—at least, for a moment.
For now, though, I leave you with one last anecdote:
I was walking down a muddy village path. It was sunny and people seemed to be doing pretty alright—a rarity. A couple days earlier, I’d dealt with a farmer who turned out to be a werewolf and his wife’s sister, who turned out to be a murderer (tool of choice: werewolf)—because, of all reasons, she was in love with the farmer and wanted him for herself. The farmer, enraged upon discovery of this fact, turned on his sister’s wife and... well, I’ll spare you the details. Then he asked me to kill him because, I mean, fuck man. I checked my business card. It said, “Witcher (you have killed a fuckton of werewolves in your time so yeah this situation is actually pretty cut-and-dry).” It did not actually say that, but you get the idea. Anyway, I killed the werewolf, but I didn’t feel great about it.
So, days later, I was walking through that town, and I overheard a couple villagers talking. “Did you hear about that farmer?” asked one. “Terrible shame. Lost his wife and her sister to a monster. I don’t blame him for leaving town.” The other nodded knowingly. At least, he said with that nod, this wasn’t the worst catastrophe in village history, a cackling reminder that no matter how bad things already are, they can always get worse by way of Shakespearean happenstance.
They got it wrong—you know, like fallible human beings instead of video game NPCs. Or maybe they didn’t want to connect the dots. What actually happened was just too damn sad. Geralt walked past them and didn’t make a peep. I was kinda glad he decided not to tell them the truth, to be honest.
Top image credit: Pantomime.